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Kabul on the edge of tragedy: Afghanistan is set to oust the Balkans and Somalia as the world's next disaster area, reports Raymond Whitaker

Four months ago, despite 14 years of civil war, it was still just possible to see why those with ambition in Afghanistan have always prized control of Kabul.

The roads might be pitted and the trees beside them stripped for fuel, gaps might be visible in a row of buildings where mujahedin rockets had landed, but here and there one could glimpse past elegance among the dereliction: a sign that when Afghanistan's experience of Marxism ended, as it was about to do, an older and more durable tradition might reassert itself.

Today, more than a third of Kabul's two million people have fled. A United Nations official said he had seen hundreds of unburied bodies in one quarter of the city a few days ago. Districts have been flattened by rockets and artillery, destroying, among other things, Kabul's main stocks of medicines and fuel. There has been no water or electricity for a month, food and fuel prices have more than tripled in the past fortnight and the few hospital staff remaining are having to operate without anaesthetics.

This destruction was not caused by the Islamic mujahedin fighting their way into Kabul. They were welcomed with open arms as President Najibullah tried unsuccessfully to flee the country and his regime collapsed. Within days the victors were fighting among themselves, bringing random death and looting to the capital, but it has undergone such episodes many times in the past.

Kabul could find nothing in its history, however, to equal what it has suffered in the past month. Early in August the extremist Hizbe Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, shed all restraint and began pouring thousands of missiles into the city. Attempts to dislodge him failed; it was nearly three weeks before a ceasefire could be agreed. Last Thursday, Mr Hekmatyar threatened to resume his bombardment if his demands, which amount to government capitulation, are not met.

Although there is no precedent for the firepower of Mr Hekmatyar and his opponents, and therefore the damage they can cause, their behaviour is not new. There are many parallels in Afghanistan's chaotic past for rulers attempting to modernise the country by force, and being overthrown by an outraged populace.

In the 1920s King Amanullah had to flee Kabul in his Rolls- Royce after an uprising which began when he convened a loya jirga, a grand tribal assembly. The tribal elders were unsettled by his programme of reforms, and scandalised when Queen Surraiya removed her veil in front of them to dramatise her husband's call for the emancipation of women.

Under the communists, women wearing make-up and jeans were a common sight in Kabul. Within days of the arrival of the mujahedin, they had all retreated behind the veil. Women appearing on television were told to wear the all-enveloping burqa; then, in response to complaints from fundamentalists, they were banned even from the radio.

Thousands of bottles of Russian vodka were crushed under tanks by the new government. Last week the capital had its first public executions in two decades, when three men were hanged for violating Islamic law.

If these measures looked ominous to the educated middle class of the capital, who have little sympathy with the guerrillas' rural Islamic conservatism, even more demoralising was the fact that the victors could agree on nothing else. The fall of the common enemy has revived every one of Afghanistan's traditional divisions, and most crucially the one between the Pathans and the rest.

From Ahmed Shah Durrani, the 18th-century founder of the Afghan nation, to Amanullah and Najibullah, the country has nearly always been ruled by Pathans, the largest group. But the battle to take over Kabul in April was won by a coalition of northerners, led by the Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud, and General Abdul Rashid Dostam, whose Uzbek militia sealed the old regime's fate when it switched sides. This takes Pathan minds back to the last time a northerner was in power.

After Amanullah's escape, Bacha Saqao, a Tajik bandit, took advantage of the general disarray to seize Kabul. He lasted a few months before being ousted by one of the former king's kinsmen. Saqao fled, but was later recaptured and hanged.

What the Pathans lack this time is an acceptable champion. Mr Hekmatyar's Islamic radicalism unsettles Pathan traditionalists, to whom clan relationships and tribal custom are as important as Muslim orthodoxy. If Mr Massoud has been discredited by his alliance with General Dostam and his brutal militia, the Hizbe Islami leader's assault on Kabul has shocked all Afghans. Refugees continue to return from Pakistan and Iran to relatively calm areas away from the capital, but their numbers have dwindled from the initial flood.

Without a strong government in Kabul, Afghanistan's neighbours fear a collapse along Yugoslavian lines, that could spread beyond the country's borders. Reconstruction has been immeasurably set back by the devastation of Kabul, but aid agencies and the government are more worried about how to get through the winter. 'I don't want to be cynical, but there's no money coming in because enough people haven't died yet,' said Richard Castrodale, head of the UN office in Pakistan that co-ordinates aid to Afghanistan. 'It wasn't until there were lots of dead bodies in Somalia that assistance was given, and come winter you are going to have another Somalia (in Afghanistan). Then we will have a response.'

Consumed by other crises, however, most of the international community has neither money nor patience to spare for Afghanistan. The Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister, Najibullah Lafraie, admitted last week that after President Burhanuddin Rabbani's request for help at the Non- Aligned Summit earlier this month, not a single pledge of aid has been received.